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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Luc Sante takes a “headlong plunge” into the lives of nineteenth-century American poets

Our series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry continues today with a contribution by Luc Sante, whose new nonfiction work The Other Paris, just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has already been hailed for its “sneaky genius” by David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times.

Below, Sante testifies to the unique inspiration he derives from the Library of America collections American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume One: Freneau to Whitman and American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume Two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals.
The Other Paris
by Luc Sante
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
I find myself drawn, again and again, to the capsule biographies in the two volumes of American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century. The poets of the nineteenth century were not only poets; not many made their living from academia, let alone literature. They were rich and poor. They were painters, actors, activists, politicians, cranks, investors, lawyers, farmers, hucksters, printers, failures, bureaucrats, physicians, journalists, divines. And many of them wore several of these hats, consecutively or even concurrently; the possibilities for self-invention and re-invention were larger then. John Hollander’s crisply detailed sketches offer a headlong plunge into the air of the nineteenth century that I find irresistible. As a tribute, from these biographical fragments I offer this collective portrait, like an overlay of photographic transparencies.

Lives of the Poets
Born in Head Tide, Maine. Born in Cherokee Nation near Rome, Georgia. Born at family estate The Forest in Amelia County, Virginia. Born into slavery on plantation of William Horton in Northampton County, North Carolina. Father, a German of Huguenot ancestry, was a herbalist and maker of patent medicines; mother, whose parents were German immigrants, was a spiritualist who believed herself endowed with mediumistic gifts. Father, a native of Vermont, served as legal counsel for Dred Scott. Father was a teacher and lecturer whose lack of success led to family’s frequently moving. Raised by his mother, a member of Campbellite sect Disciples of Christ, who discouraged his interest in literature and treated him severely. Family settled eventually in Spunk Point (now Warsaw), Illinois.

By his own account, spoke little English before age 14. After father’s death, apprenticed to a tailor; ran away to Philadelphia, where he learned trade of cigar-making. Worked from early age in father's blacksmith shop; received little schooling. Apprenticed to printer, and in his teens worked for The Huron Reflector in Norwalk, Ohio, and Western Aurora in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Following graduation from local high school, worked for six years as cashier in local pool hall, which was also center for legal off-track betting. Educated at Dayton’s public schools; graduated from Central High School, where he was editor of the school paper, class poet, and only black member of his class. While still in high school founded short-lived newspaper The Dayton Tattler, printed by classmate and future aviator Orville Wright. Left school and worked as lawyer’s assistant and in counting-house, becoming self-supporting by age 15.

Deliberately burned left hand (necessitating amputation) as self-punishment for having beaten another young man in fit of misguided jealousy after he had shown attention to Minna Timmins of Boston. Worked as miner and as a cook in the mining camps; spent time among Indians near Mount Shasta, and had a daughter, Cali-Shasta, with a woman of the band. Enjoyed initial acclaim as actor and was called “the American Roscius.” Wrote financially successful household manual The Frugal Housewife. Was also an inventor; patented a knitting machine, a walking doll, and a rotary engine. Entered world of finance with much success, forming his own brokerage company and eventually holding a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Affiliation with Quakers formally dissolved following his participation in a street brawl.

American Poetry: The
Nineteenth Century, Vol. 1
After husband’s death moved with sons and stepsons to an uncle’s coffee plantation in Matanzas, Cuba, where she built a small house and began Zophiël, or the Bride of Seven, epic poem concerning the love of a fallen angel for a mortal, based on an episode in apocryphal Book of Tobit. While recuperating from illness, reported having vision of fountain of water and angels playing harps. Following brother’s death at 19, experienced troubling visions he attributed to Satan. After being administered nitrous oxide in a dentist’s office, underwent mystical experience; repeated the experience at frequent intervals, expounding philosophical conclusions from it in The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy. Contributed poetry and visionary prose to The Univercoelum, periodical devoted to ideas of mesmerist Andrew Jackson Davis (known as “the Poughkeepsie seer”). Later volumes were poetic collections Eonchs of Ruby, A Gift of Love; Memoralia; or, Phials of Amber Full of the Tears of Love; the long poem Atlanta: or The True Blessed Island of Poesy; and the play The Sons of Usna: a Tragi-Apotheosis. Under tutelage of Sakurai Keitoku Ajari of Homyoin Temple in Kyoto, converted to Tendai sect of Buddhism. Emperor awarded him Fourth and Third Class Orders of the Rising Sun and Third Class Order of the Sacred Mirror.

Marriage strained because of husband’s objection to many of her public activities. Imprisoned for debt in Fleet Prison; moved to Paris upon release and continued to dodge his many creditors. Traveled to California, where he was briefly jailed for horse theft; escaped with cell-mate and again lived with Indians. Wife Fanny died when her dress caught on fire; he was badly burned putting the flames out. Marriage troubled by his neglect of family responsibilities. Lived increasingly separately from wife and children. Notorious for affair with elderly novelist Alexandre Dumas; photographs of the two of them circulated widely. He and wife, Caddie, had three daughters, Essie, Mable, and Alberta, who later became vaudeville team The Whitman Sisters.

Postmistress of Auburndale, Massachusetts; endured opposition and boycotts from residents opposed to Roman Catholicism. Developed deep interest in American Indians and published A Century of Dishonor, influential account of U.S. government mistreatment and deception; sent a copy to every member of Congress at her own expense. Interested in economic ideas of Henry George; defended anarchists sentenced to death following Haymarket Riot. Lobbied in Washington against the admission of Texas to the Union. Involved in diplomatic maneuvering relating to Spanish-American War and annexation of Philippines, which he enthusiastically supported. Prepared paper for Cleveland convention urging black settlement on borders of California; active thereafter in plans for black emigration and colonization; believed to have traveled to Central America to investigate possibility of purchasing land there for colonization.

American Poetry: The
Nineteenth Century, Vol. 2
Became world-famous for her ride across stage strapped to the back of a horse in the dramatic version of Byron’s “Mazeppa.” Traveled to Great Britain, where privately printed Pacific Poems and manners and costume (sombrero, boots, spurs, and buckskin) gained him fame as “frontier poet.” Returned to U.S. to find that his popularity did not extend there. Local response to his editorial protest in Northern Californian against “indiscriminate massacre” of 60 Wiyot Indians on Guyot’s Island forced him to leave Aracata. Family estate Woodlands was destroyed by stragglers from Sherman’s army; fled to Columbia, South Carolina, and witnessed its burning. Lost home and possessions when Sherman’s army burned Columbia; reduced to extreme poverty.

Left Vilna for Warsaw and was caught up in Napoleon’s retreat during his journey. Contracted lung inflammation; died a few days after leaving Warsaw for Zanowiec, a village near Cracow. Died when caught in a blizzard while walking home. Died during yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans. Drowned while trying to cross the North Canadian River, Oklahoma, in a small boat. During bout of influenza, died in Venice in fall from balcony. Received serious injuries in fall from tree, which led to his death two years later. Died at home; his last intelligible words were “moose” and “Indian.” After settling his affairs, he disappeared into Mexico, writing to a friend: “If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life.” Poems published posthumously, although most of the poems were written when he was in his teens.

Sources, in order by paragraph (some items are more than one sentence long):
Edward Arlington Robinson, John Rollin Ridge, John Banister Tabb, George Moses Horton, Madison Cawein, Eugene Field, Bret Harte, Edwin Markham, John Hay.

Alexander L. Posey, Thomas Buchanan Read, Daniel Decatur Emmett, Madison Cawein, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Bret Harte.

John Jay Chapman, Joaquin Miller, John Howard Payne, Lydia Maria Child, Henry Clay Work, Edmund Clarence Stedman, John Neal.

Maria Gowen Brooks, Thomas Holley Chivers, Manoah Bodman, Benjamin Paul Blood, Thomas Holley Chivers, Ernest Fenollosa.

Julia Ward Howe, John Howard Payne, Joaquin Miller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Ellery Channing, Bret Harte, Adah Isaacs Menken, Albery Allson Whitman.

Louise Imogen Guiney, Helen Hunt Jackson, Stuart Merrill, John Greenleaf Whittier, John Hay, James Monroe Whitfield.

Adah Isaacs Menken, Joaquin Miller, Bret Harte, William Gilmore Simms, Henry Timrod.

Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau, Richard Henry Wilde, Alexander L. Posey, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Edward Hamilton Sears, Henry David Thoreau, Ambrose Bierce, John Rollin Ridge.
Luc Sante is the author of the nonfiction books Low Life, Evidence, The Factory of Facts, and Kill All Your Darlings. A contributor to The New York Review of Books since 1981, he is the visiting professor of writing and the history of photography at Bard College and lives in upstate New York.

Related posts:

Recent “Influences” posts:
Kirk LynnSara JaffeAlexandra KleemanAmitava Kumar

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Generous grant matches timeless writing with twenty-first-century printing technology

The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, a noted sponsor of scholarship in the humanities, has awarded a grant to allow The Library of America to complete the conversion of old film used to manufacture its books.

With a commitment to keep series volumes permanently in print, Library of America began publishing titles in 1982. In the more than three decades since, printing technology has rapidly changed; early volumes in the series were printed using compositors, cameras, and photographic film to produce the plates used on press. Today, all major printing firms use desktop publishing and digital plates—and virtually no commercial printer is able to use the old film and plates for their presses.

Pages of a Library of America
reprint at Edwards Brothers Malloy
in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The challenge: the first 115 titles in the LOA series were still in film—and equally troubling was the fact some of the film in storage was beginning to show signs of age, including warping, scratches, and tears. Thus, in 2006 LOA staff began converting all its old film: digitizing 125,243 pages with ultra-high-resolution scanners; positioning the images so they will correctly align in the book; checking each scan for dust, scratches, warping, and broken letters; and retouching or re-typesetting pages that show signs of damage or wear.

The process has been both expensive and labor-intensive. But by this past summer all except ten titles had been converted. The remaining titles:
  • Henry Adams: Novels, Mont Saint Michel, The Education
  • William Bartram: Travels & Other Writings
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: Poems & Translations
  • Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra
  • Washington Irving: History, Tales and Sketches
  • Francis Parkman: France and England in North America, vol. I
  • Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1969–1975
  • Eudora Welty: Complete Novels
  • Edith Wharton: Novellas & Other Writings
  • Richard Wright: Later Works
The generous grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation will allow LOA staff to finish this project during the next year. In fact, the Wharton volume is already in production and will be available again in bookstores in late November.

Related post:
How a Library of America book is born

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Playwright-turned-novelist Kirk Lynn on Joe Brainard, James Thurber, and other influences on Rules for Werewolves

Rules for Werewolves
by Kirk Lynn
(Melville House, 2015)
Our series of guest posts by contemporary writers discussing their influences continues with a contribution from Austin-based playwright Kirk Lynn, whose debut novel, Rules for Werewolves, relates the exploits of a group of teenage squatters entirely through dialogue. Critic Greil Marcus is already a fan of the book, stating: “You get caught up with these people. You take sides. And then Kirk Lynn confounds your expectations at every turn.”
Joe Brainard taught me everything I know. I Remember is the greatest American novel that isn’t one. Brainard writes hundreds of sentences over the years that begin, “I remember . . .” and then tells the truth about growing up queer in Oklahoma, becoming an avant-garde painter in New York, and everything in between. It is a litany that wakes you up in its repetition. I keep it on my desk. It’s better than the Internet for browsing.

The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson is another novel that isn’t. It asks the reader to do a lot of the work along with it, which gives me a feeling of companionship. All of Anne Carson’s books are radical, but the narrative in this one was very personal and close to me, so I keep it near. How does love work? And when it stops working, what then?

David Markson is an assassin. He killed the American novel, that vampire that gets up again and again, thank god. But read Vanishing Point, or This is Not a Novel, and it’s hard to find a better companion book. Little histories of literature and art, complete in themselves, and totally different from one another. Read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, the book that seems to have taught the author how to write in his own voice. These are all novels told in the connection of ideas, one sentence urging the reader to think about its connection to the next. If there are composers who know how to use silence, David Markson is a writer who knows how to use his reader’s consciousness.

The Autobiography of
Alice B. Toklas

by Gertrude Stein
(Harcourt, Brace,
and Company, 1933)
Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is one of the books that helped the future arrive. As with so much of the literature I adore, Gertrude Stein sees no reason to abandon humor in order to find intelligence. She sees no reason to abandon fact to write fiction. She sees no reason to let anyone else write Alice B. Toklas’s autobiography. You can go as deep as your tolerance for strangeness and meditation will allow into Gertrude Stein’s oeuvre and always be rewarded, but you can’t go very deep into literature if you won’t dive into this autobiography.

Conversations with Beethoven by Sanford Friedman is the standard of avant-garde elegance. Fact: Unable to hear a lick, Beethoven had to be addressed in writing for the last year of his life. The novel takes the form of the notebooks the composer carried in which people wrote their questions and requests. The maestro spoke his answers, so his responses are not recorded in the novel. It’s a one-sided conversation between the world and a silent Beethoven, but the composer’s passion and outsize personality dominate the narrative and echo in your mind for a good while after you’ve finished the book.

Imago by Octavia E. Butler is all about transformation and becoming something you’re not, both inside and out. I think the book changed me. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi, but if you can get your hands on one or two real gems a year, it’s good for your full mental range—and Butler is one of the perfect mixologists, balancing deep thought and a ripping yarn.

The Girl Who Owned a City by O. T. Nelson is a weird little wonder that fell into my hands when my middle school teacher, Mrs. Bathke, either assigned it or smuggled it into my life. A strange virus kills off everyone on earth older than twelve and the kids have to figure out how to feed and care for themselves, including how to defend themselves from other terrible twelve-year-olds. Dystopian fiction before it was all the rage. And the author never wrote another book and no one seems to know if he’s alive or dead.

Carpenter's Gothic
by William Gaddis
(Viking, 1985)
Carpenter’s Gothic could also be subtitled, for me, “the William Gaddis book I could read.” Another novel in dialogue, this one digging into the underbelly of American capitalism and colonialism. I remember falling into a trance and reading quickly. I remember reading bits of it aloud with friends. I remember there’s only one sentence of description and it’s about the leaves outside.

Emily Dickinson, especially The Gorgeous Nothings, can be an angel who responds to doubt. She did her work her way and I’m not half feral enough to get as free as she was, but some corner of the idea that form is personal and the work is its own reward can protect you. And then the work itself is so revelatory and prophetic!

And if there is one book that inspired me after I was done with Rules and made me want to get back to the prose, it’s Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Told in short, aphoristic bursts that find some middle ground between David Markson and Anton Chekhov, this book broke my heart and made want to be a better dad and husband in addition to driving me wild with envy as a writer.

And Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write! Short, sharp, human, hilarious thinking about dialogue and umbrellas and penises. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction or essays, either, but like sci-fi if you get the right one or two a year your brain will thank you. Because these are one hundred essays all jammed into one little book, it can count for a couple years’ worth of essay reading.

James Thurber:
Writings and Drawings

(Library of America, 1996)
You can convince yourself that James Thurber is totally legit because he was all over the New Yorker. But you know who might have a problem with that is the ghost of James Thurber. He didn’t have a high opinion of people who had too high an opinion of themselves. But as far as a guide for the kind of writing that doesn’t know whether it’s funny or sad, you can do no better than Thurber. And there is an openness to his formal approach to story, he captures the odd sad moment in cartoons one minute and then stretches them out to a fable and then abandons the pictures and makes short story of the captions in a sequential story like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and then sometimes takes that same conceit and dips it in real sorrow like “The Whip-Poor-Will.” A great guide if you’re looking to get lost in the American voice.
Kirk Lynn is one of six co-producing artistic directors of Austin’s Rude Mechanicals theater collective and also the head of the Playwriting and Directing Area in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin. Recent works include Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra, which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York City in 2014, and the 2014 Lincoln Center commission Stop Hitting Yourself.

Previous “Influences” posts:
Jabari AsimDeborah BakerKate ChristensenJennifer Gilmore
Lauren GroffLev GrossmanAlan HeathcockJane Hirschfield
Sara Jaffe Alexandra KleemanAmitava KumarAdam Levin
Annie Liontas • Dawn McGuireDinaw MengestuJim Moore
Manuel Muñoz • Maggie NelsonViet Thanh Nguyen
Geoffrey O’Brien Arthur Phillips • Carl PhillipsKaren Russell
Timothy Schaffert Philip Schultz • Mark StatmanEmma Straub
J. Courtney Sullivan Ellen Ullman • Adam Wilson

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Photos: No stranger in this Village, James Baldwin recognized with official plaque

New York City laid a claim to one of its most distinguished native sons last Wednesday, October 7, when a plaque honoring James Baldwin was officially unveiled at 81 Horatio Street in Greenwich Village.

The plaque in honor of James Baldwin at 81 Horatio Street
in New York City, unveiled on Oct. 7, 2015.

Baldwin lived at 81 Horatio Street from 1958 to 1961 and wrote part of his 1962 novel Another Country there. The plaque commemorates his time at the address and acknowledges in a more tacit way the influence Greenwich Village had on Baldwin’s art and activism ever since he first found a refuge there, while still in his teens, in the early 1940s. (Rufus Scott, the doomed protagonist of Another Country, thinks of the Village as “the place of liberation”—years before real-life events in the neighborhood would give that term added resonance.)

The plaque is a project of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, with the support of the Two Boots Foundation; its unveiling made an apt coda to the recent citywide “Year of James Baldwin” marking what would have been the author’s 90th year.

At the ceremony Library of America publisher Max Rudin was part of a roster of speakers that included James Baldwin’s nephew Trevor Baldwin, writer Fran Lebowitz, and Gregory Pardlo, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Enjoy photos from the scene via the gallery below, and click here for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s video of the complete ceremony.

All photos © Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Trevor Baldwin addresses the crowd on Oct. 7, 2015.

Library of America Publisher Max Rudin, writer Fran Lebowitz,
and Karen Loew of the Greenwich Village Society for
Historic Preservation before the unveiling on Oct. 7, 2015.

Max Rudin offers remarks on Oct. 7, 2015.

A crowd fills Horatio Street to hear Fran Lebowitz speak
from the stoop (far right) on Oct. 7, 2015.

Click here for complete information on Later Novels, the third and final volume in The Library of America’s Baldwin edition.

Related posts:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Listen: Library of America makes rediscovered genre masterworks available in audio, digital formats

Library of America e-book editions of
The Horizontal Man and Fools’ Gold.
What’s old is new again this fall, when The Library of America simultaneously releases two rediscovered mystery-suspense novels—The Horizontal Man (1946) by Helen Eustis and Fools’ Gold (1958) by Dolores Hitchens—in both audiobook and e-book editions. The two works mark The Library of America's first foray into the audiobook medium.

The Horizontal Man and Fools’ Gold are part of the new LOA two-volume collection Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, which restores to print eight unjustly overlooked or neglected noir novels of the mid-twentieth century. Surveying the Women Crime Writers set last month in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout singled out these two books for particular praise: “Each of them is smartly plotted, tautly written, sharply characterized and not at all dated.”

The Library of America has drawn on established talent for its inaugural audiobook productions. The reader for The Horizontal Man is veteran actress Barbara Rosenblat (Orange Is the New Black), an acclaimed reader with hundreds of titles to her credit, while Fools’ Gold is read by Scott Brick, another experienced narrator whose résumé includes literary classics like In Cold Blood and Light in August. Patti Pirooz, the former publisher of audiobooks at Penguin, produced both The Horizontal Man and Fools’ Gold.

As a special bonus feature, both audiobooks include commentary by Sarah Weinman, editor of Women Crime Writers and an authority on mystery-suspense fiction.

Listen to an excerpt from The Horizontal Man:

Buy from Audible • Buy from iBooks

Listen to a Fools’ Gold excerpt:

Buy from Audible • Buy from iBooks

Meanwhile, e-book editions of The Horizontal Man and Fools’ Gold arrive in response to ongoing demand for Library of America books in electronic form. Click on the relevant links below for specific e-book platforms.

The Horizontal Man
KindleKoboGoogle BooksiBooksNook

Fools’ Gold
KindleKoboGoogle BooksiBooksNook

Watch Reader’s Almanac for information on new Library of America audiobooks and e-books in the months ahead.

Visit the Women Crime Writers companion website for complete information on The Horizontal Man and Fools’ Gold and their authors, along with appreciations by contemporary writers and related contextual material.

Related posts:

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Sara Jaffe: From James Baldwin to Lynne Tillman—four influences on Dryland

Dryland by Sara Jaffe
(Tin House Books, 2015)
Our series of guest posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history continues today with a contribution from Sara Jaffe, whose just-published debut novel Dryland is a coming-of-age story set in Portland, Oregon, in the early 1990s. The novel is drawing praise from a number of other writers: novelist Justin Torres (We the Animals) has cited Jaffe as “an important new voice” and Sara Marcus (Girls to the Front) called the book “a gorgeous, layered, meticulous, clamoring, beating heart of a thing.”

Below, Jaffe discusses four authors who have influenced both her writing in general and Dryland in particular.
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room. When I was living in San Francisco, I had a sudden desire to re-read Giovanni’s Room and discovered I no longer had a copy. I ran out to the used bookstore and bought one. Upon arriving home and opening the book, I discovered an inscription: from S., my first real girlfriend, with whom I’d had a very prolonged and dramatic breakup, to the girl she dated after me. It was too perfect. Giovanni’s Room is a novel of love and doom in equal measure. And though the ultimate doom of Giovanni’s death may bookend the novel, the few scenes in the middle that describe the night David and Giovanni meet and first start to fall for each other are like gay love candy—so vivid, heady, and sweet.

Part of the reason it works so well is that, though the story is told through David’s first-person point-of-view, he’s in such deep denial about his attraction to Giovanni that it takes the older queens calling him out for us to fully get the sense of what’s going on. We get both the subjective thrill of David’s unnamed excitement and the vicarious thrill of Jacques and the others watching and naming it. It’s such a deft and interesting use of the first person, because it doesn’t put the onus on the reader to identify with David; rather, it allows us to observe him.

As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner
(Cape & Smith, 1930)
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying. “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.” I still have my copy of As I Lay Dying from college, with that sentence, at the end of one of Dewey Dell’s sections, underlined. I think it was one of the first times I underlined a sentence in a novel not for what it had to do, in whatever convoluted and out-of-context manner, with me, but because I was so moved by the language itself. Every syllable pulses, and the image is indelible. As I Lay Dying did something to my ear, forever changed it. The novel marks when I began to seek tension-action-drama in the relationship of words to each other in a sentence, rather than (solely) at the level of narrative.

Jane Bowles, My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles. I find it very difficult to describe the particular strangeness of a Jane Bowles story. Each character is so tightly contained in his or her own universe, utterly incapable of—or uninterested in—understanding why any other person says or does anything. A friend once described Bowles’s characters as having no interiority, but I don’t think that’s exactly it—it’s as if their interiors are turned outward, as if they lead with interiority, their speech and actions hindered by neither societal conventions, self-consciousness, nor self-awareness. In such a landscape, there’s no such thing as contradiction. And causality itself becomes completely upended, doing miraculous things to plot. What “happens” is dictated only by each character’s peculiar, particular logic. Bowles’s writing is soaked in an anxiety I recognize.

I don’t know if or how Jane Bowles actually shows up in my writing. I don’t discard psychological realism. But, in writing Dryland, when I was up against a passage that I had trouble wresting from cliche, I opened up a document called “Mrs. Copperfield” and tried to write it in a Bowlesian style. It helped me locate productive disconnections between characters, and to make characters’ actions and emotions unfamiliar to themselves.

Haunted Houses
by Lynne Tillman
(Poseidon Press, 1987)
Lynne Tillman, Haunted Houses. In the conventional bildungsroman, the protagonist is set on a path of self-discovery, and once he or she discovers what needs to be discovered, he or she changes, or comes right up to the cusp of change. But in Haunted Houses, Tillman’s first novel, the three protagonists—Grace, Emily, and Jane, who exist in parallel chapters but never meet—do not change, not really. Or, maybe more accurately, Tillman doesn’t foreground a narrative of change, or development, in any conventional sense. Her characters accrue experiences, they move through their lives, they think and act but when you remove the imperative of change each thought and action achieves a kind of parity with each other. In the resulting flatness, we feel the grain of lived experience—what it is to be a person in a body in the world.
Sara Jaffe’s fiction has appeared in such publications as Fence and BOMB and she co-edited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians based on her experience as guitarist (1999–2004) for the post-punk band Erase Errata. Jaffe currently lives and teaches in Portland.

Previous “Influences” posts:
Jabari AsimDeborah BakerKate ChristensenJennifer Gilmore
Lauren GroffLev GrossmanAlan HeathcockJane Hirschfield
Alexandra KleemanAmitava KumarAdam LevinAnnie Liontas
Dawn McGuireDinaw MengestuJim MooreManuel Muñoz
Maggie NelsonViet Thanh NguyenGeoffrey O’BrienArthur Phillips
Carl PhillipsKaren RussellTimothy SchaffertPhilip Schultz
Mark StatmanEmma StraubJ. Courtney SullivanEllen Ullman
Adam Wilson

Friday, October 2, 2015

Morgan Library exhibition presents an Ernest Hemingway for the twenty-first century

Library of America fans are strongly encouraged to visit the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City for the new exhibition Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars, a revelatory re-examination of a writer whose outsized fame has often threatened to overshadow everything that’s best about his work.

Organized in partnership with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, the show is a bonanza of manuscripts and typescripts, first editions, correspondence, and personal mementos. It follows Hemingway from his service as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian front in World War I, where he was badly wounded, to his stint as a war correspondent accompanying Allied troops across France in 1944–45. (Hemingway’s October 1944 dispatch for Collier’s, “How We Came to Paris,” is included in the Library of America anthology Reporting World War II: Volume Two: American Journalism 1944–1946.)

Hemingway’s 1923 passport (detail).
The Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

With an emphasis on his Paris years (1921–28) and on the craft of writing, Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars is unmistakably meant to supplant memories of Hemingway’s later public persona—the overbearing “Papa,” who starred in ads for Ballantine Ale and Parker 51 pens and who was invariably photographed in the pages of LIFE and Look with a shotgun or fishing rod in hand.

Instead, the exhibition foregrounds the ambitious young talent with avant-garde leanings who adopted Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound as his mentors soon after arriving in Paris and who claimed he learned how to write from studying Cezanne paintings at the Musée du Luxembourg. These were the years when he set about forging the deceptively simple prose style that would become an inescapable influence on generations of American writers.

Stein’s advice after reading Hemingway’s work for the first time was “Begin over again and concentrate.” The most illuminating aspect of the Morgan exhibition is how keenly he took those words to heart. Manuscript pages on display reveal a determined self-editor who could cut eight pages from the beginning of the story “Indian Camp” in 1924 and two entire chapters from the opening of The Sun Also Rises two years later. These and the other revisions documented in the exhibit make it clear we can all be grateful Hemingway made the choices he did. (Another revelation: the author had to fight to convince his squeamish publishers to keep the term “bed pan” in A Farewell to Arms.)

Three Stories & Ten Poems, [Paris]: Contact
Publishing Co., 1923. The Carter Burden Collection of
American Literature, The Morgan Library & Museum,
photography by Graham S. Haber, 2014.
For Hemingway devotees, there will be a special appeal in seeing physical copies of his rare early publications like 1923’s Three Stories & Ten Poems (printed in an edition of 300) and the first, 1924 version of In Our Time (printed in an edition of 170). Meanwhile, many of the other items on display—such as the ticket stubs from bullfights in Pamplona and Madrid, and an encouraging letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald written on ocean liner stationery—are redolent of an old-fashioned expatriate glamour.

Winding down at the close of World War II, the exhibition sidesteps the saga of Hemingway’s later years, when drinking, depression, and a staggering number of medical problems took their toll on both his writing and his psyche. Yet the Morgan’s curator, Declan Kiely, manages to close on a fascinating forward-looking note.

One of the last items on view is a 1945 letter to Hemingway from J. D. Salinger, written when the latter was recovering from what was then euphemistically known as “combat fatigue” in a U.S. Army hospital in Nuremburg, Germany. The two men had met briefly in Paris just after its liberation in 1944, an encounter Salinger recalls as “the only helpful minutes of the whole business.” It’s increasingly a critical commonplace to read The Catcher in the Rye as a kind of sublimated war novel, but the less obvious parallel is between the stark purity of Hemingway’s early stories and the Zen distillations of Salinger’s short fiction, which date from more than a generation later. By drawing that line, the exhibition hints at some tantalizing potential affinities that can enhance our appreciation of both authors and of American writing over a forty-year period.

Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City through January 31, 2016. Visit themorgan.org for complete exhibition information.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Photos: At Edith Wharton’s House, James Baldwin Receives His Due

Kate Bolick and Darryl Pinckney
at The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts on Sept. 17, 2015.

In a moment of literary serendipity last Thursday, one writer in The Library of America series was honored at the home of another when James Baldwin was the subject of a public program at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former estate in western Massachusetts. Darryl Pinckney, editor of the forthcoming LOA collection James Baldwin: Later Novels, joined journalist and critic Kate Bolick for a talk on contemporary race relations and how Baldwin’s writings continue to resonate in twenty-first-century America. The conversation kicked off the latest season of “Touchstones at the Mount,” an ongoing series of author talks hosted by Bolick.

By coincidence, James Baldwin: Later Novels will be published one week from today–on the same day as Edith Wharton: Four Novels of the 1920s, the fifth installment in The Library of America edition of Wharton’s collected works.

In addition to editing the forthcoming Baldwin volume for The Library of America, Pinckney is the author of the novel High Cotton and the nonfiction works Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature and Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy. Bolick, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, is the author of Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, a combination of memoir and cultural criticism that includes a lengthy consideration of Edith Wharton’s life and work.

Darryl Pinckney (holding James Baldwin: Later Novels)
and Kate Bolick at The Mount
in Lenox, Massachusetts on Sept. 17, 2015.

Watch Readers’ Almanac in the weeks ahead for more on both James Baldwin: Later Novels and Edith Wharton: Four Novels of the 1920s.

Photographs courtesy of The Mount.

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Women Crime Writers: Forty books, four pen names, and one enigmatic author

Published last week, The Library of America’s two-volume collection Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s has already won praise from the Washington Post and the Charlotte Observer, which says that the anthology “revives many a forgotten masterwork.”

Fools’ Gold author
Dolores Hitchens.
“Forgotten masterwork” is a helpful capsule description of the last novel collected in the set, 1958’s Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens, which had effectively fallen off the cultural radar despite having been made into the film Band of Outsiders by Jean-Luc Godard in 1964. Readers may be curious to know more about Hitchens (1907–1973) beyond what’s contained in The Library of America’s biographical note, which lists the more than forty titles she published under four different names in a career that spanned thirty-five years.

So who was Dolores Hitchens, aka D. B. Olsen, aka Dolan Birkley, aka Noel Burke? Women Crime Writers editor Sarah Weinman has uncovered a 1952 letter from Hitchens to her editor at Doubleday, Isabelle Taylor, which explains at least one change of nom de plume and also serves as a witty miniature author bio. The letter originally saw the light of day in the privately published 1995 Doubleday Crime Club Compendium 1928–1991, edited by Ellen Nehr, and is here reprinted by permission of the Dolores Hitchens estate.
It’s no secret that I am also D. B. Olsen. In fact I’m glad to get away from the Olsen name for a change (not having been married to Mr. Olsen for some twelve years now makes the necessity of continuing to be D. B. Olsen literally a bit irksome). The books I do under the Hitchens label are not the same type. It gives me a fresh lease on life. A new reincarnation, book-wise.

The full name, and I’m not making this up as I go along, is Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robins Norton Birk Olsen Hitchens. The first five names have been whittled down to one—the only one I like. The five last names are accounted for by a series of step-fathers and two husbands.

I always hated the name Julia and the pay-off came, at a graduation party at High School, when names were used in rhymes on the place-cards, and some would-be poet rhymed Julia with fool-ya. That was the moment when I became, once and for all, Dolores. Wouldn’t you?

I’m taking psychology courses at the local college in my spare (joke) time with the ultimate aim of outfitting my characters with the latest in psychoses and fixations. Last time I wrote you we lived in Eureka but are now back in southern California on the outskirts of Long Beach in a district called Lakewood where the houses are laid overnight, like eggs. An estimated 3,500 people are moving in. We’re in an older district, however, and miss much of the excitement.
Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens is also available as a Library of America e-book and audiobook. Click here (scroll down) for more information on both formats.

Visit the Women Crime Writers companion website for complete information on all eight novels and their authors, along with appreciations by contemporary writers and related contextual material.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The long, hard-fought campaign that led to The Library of America’s founding

September/October 2015
An origin story that is near and dear to us reached the public last week with the publication of “Edmund Wilson’s Big Idea,” a detailed history of The Library of America’s founding by David Skinner that appears in the September/October issue of Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and online at neh.gov.

Skinner’s intricate, inside-baseball account makes it clear that the LOA had a long gestation period, stretching across decades—which perhaps isn’t surprising for a nonprofit literary enterprise. What may grab readers’ attention, though, is how close the Library came to not happening at all.

The original inspiration dates back to the 1950s, and to the critic Edmund Wilson, who had long complained of the lack of authoritative, readily available editions of seminal American authors. Wilson had in mind a U.S. equivalent to the French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade: reference editions of the classics in an inexpensive format. While he was able to recruit influential allies for his venture, his efforts to secure the necessary funding never came to fruition, despite the founding of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965. After that, years of competing proposals and various forms of academic and institutional politics kept his dream from becoming reality until the late 1970s, well after Wilson himself passed away in 1972. And even then, as Skinner shows, launching the project was a close-fought battle.

Skeptics argued that the proposed books would be too bulky. They would be too uncommercial—or they wouldn’t be scholarly enough. But years of tireless advocacy and shrewd politicking by the team who succeeded Wilson—“a rough synthesis of scholarship and New York City publishing brio,” in Skinner’s words—finally led to a Ford Foundation grant of $600,000 and a National Endowment for the Humanities grant of $1.2 million in early 1979.

The Library of America's first print ad, May 1982.

The rest, as they say, is literary history, and it would take an article at least as long as Skinner’s to do justice to the Library of America story since then. Its first four titles—collections of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—went on sale in early 1982, and years later Edmund Wilson himself entered the pantheon, via a two-volume set that amasses his essays and reviews from the 1920s through ‘40s. Perhaps the happiest note to conclude on is to mention that while in 1982 the first Library of America print ad [above] proudly predicted, “eventually the series will number more than one hundred volumes,” our upcoming James Baldwin: Later Novels, publishing later this month, is number #272 in the series.

Read “Edmund Wilson’s Big Idea” at neh.gov

(Note: since its founding The Library of America has not received regular funding from any foundation or government agency. Instead, it relies on grants and charitable contributions every year to supplement its revenue from sales.)

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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Alexandra Kleeman: Philip K. Dick’s “gnostic logic” and other influences on You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

You Too Can Have a
Body Like Mine
Alexandra Kleeman
(Harper, 2015)
Our series of guest posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry continues today with a contribution from Alexandra Kleeman, whose just-published debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, a seriocomic foray into consumerism and a uniquely contemporary kind of anomie, is drawing comparisons to DeLillo and Pynchon and, in the words of a Slate reviewer, “may be our best novel about the weirdness of being female in a culture that is obsessed with women’s bodies.” Below, Kleeman shares some of her formative influences as a writer.

VALIS, Philip K. Dick. People often think of Dick as a bad writer with an amazing set of concepts he’s trying to convey, but it’s not until you try to perform a Dickian act of narrative inversion or reality-shifting that you see how much skill and craft goes into what can look superficially like clunky writing. VALIS aims to make the reader perceive distinct entities as existentially or spiritually unitary—beneath surface differences lies a gnostic equivalence. Hence VALIS’s unfortunately-named protagonist Horselover Fat (an etymological equivalent for Philip K. Dick’s own name) can have a friend named Phil Dick, and later discover that he and Phil Dick are one and the same person. It would be easier (though still somewhat impossible) to tell this story from the outside, narrating and explaining this discovery. But Dick embeds you in Horselover Fat’s consciousness, forcing you to experience the contradictions of this gnostic logic as a visceral assault on your own individuality. It’s one of the strangest and most mysterious books out there, and I think it’s more radical in its structure than Pynchon or DeLillo because Dick allows not just inconsistencies but full-blown paradoxes to crop up in his world. The reader becomes a site for the resolution of these unresolvables, the effect often being that you find yourself thinking an impossible thing that you’ve never thought before, or experiencing something that feels like it could tear you in half.

Letters to Wendy’s, Joe Wenderoth. This book takes the form a series of direct-address poems written on [the fast-food restaurant] Wendy’s comment cards—a uniquely modern constraint on composition if there ever was one. Shifting between exhortation, reflection, abuse, Wenderoth did a sort of postmodern take on “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”—you could call it “500 Ways That Wendy’s Looks Back at You.” Lines like “People eating toward eternity! People looking nice toward eternity! It is terrible to be real, I know, but it is more terrible to be long” abut vivid descriptions of ground meat and factory farming. Wenderoth challenges the idea that the American lyric voice died with the obsolesce of the circumstances and landscapes that gave birth to it originally: in his poems there are pathos, tenderness, rage, and above all 100% real emotion, not from concentrate. I first read these when I was eighteen, and they rooted in me a belief that the unexceptional suburban places that surrounded me were not boring and sterile even though they were built to be—there was ample emotion, only that emotion was made wilder and stranger because it couldn’t find a place to settle itself.

The Member of the Wedding
, Carson McCullers. A slew of books and movies out there aim to represent the transitional point at which the world stops engaging with you as a girl and begins engaging you, whether you like it or not, as a woman. None of them do it as well as Carson McCullers does. Frankie Addams is a twelve-year-old tomboy who “wishes that people could change back and forth from boys to girls”—we follow her over the course of a few days as she fantasizes about leaving town with her brother and his new bride, who are due to get married and then go on a honeymoon. By the end of the book, she’s narrowly escaped a disturbing encounter with a soldier and has learned what the reader knew all along: Her life is fixed insofar as her gender is fixed. She’ll learn to navigate the world with her newly sexualized body, she’ll learn unpleasant lessons about other people, she’ll age and if she does leave town it’s likely to be through a conventional, gendered channel rather than the escape she had imagined with her brother and his new wife, in a role she had dreamed up herself. This is a dark book, but funny, and true to a form of becoming a woman that I’ve known myself.

Breakfast of Champions
by Kurt Vonnegut
(Delacorte Press, 1973)
Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is a good prescription for anyone who’s suffering from loneliness or sadness, which is why I read him in high school and why I consider him something like a personal friend to this day, even though obviously we never met. What he does so well in this book is depict people who are alone in their loneliness, together. Dwayne Hoover is a successful car salesman who’s on the brink of going insane and just looking for the right idea to fixate upon, Kilgore Trout is a published but more or less ignored author with a fictional premise that will end up driving Hoover mad. Threaded through their story are victims of racism and injustice, syphilitic microbes, cows and the hamburgers they are made into. From the perspective of narrator or reader, the sadness of each of these individual characters becomes visible as a sad but sympathetic web that connects us all invisibly. Even if the problems are terrible and unresolved, Vonnegut gives you a taste of what it’s like to empathize not just with individual others, but for the whole painful system.

Empathy, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. This is the poetry that I open up whenever I want to feel calmer and wiser, or like I am with a calm wise friend whose emotions absorb me while allowing me to be myself, separate. These are intricately detailed etchings of an internal landscape, or a seismograph registering the peak and fall of one single emotional thread. Everything in them is an analogue for feeling, or every feeling in them is an analogue for unadulterated space and air and light. I love this book too much.
Though relations with oneself and with other people seem negotiated in terms secretly confirmed
by representation, her idea of the person’s visibility was not susceptible to representation. No matter
how emphatically a person will control his demeanor, there will be perspectives she cannot foresee or
direct, because there is no assignable end to the depth of us to which representation can reach,
the way part of a circle can be just the memory of a depth. The surface inside its contour,
like the inside of a body emits more feeling than its surroundings, as if
the volume or capacity of relations would only refer to something inside, that I can’t see,
that the other person and I keep getting in the way of, or things in the landscape while they are driving,
instead of the capacity being of your person. The volume of a bright cottonwood could be almost
a lack of volume or lack of space inside the tree, the way a membrane is the entrance of an organism.
—from “Honeymoon”
Alexandra Kleeman’s fiction has been published in The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, Conjunctions, Guernica, and Gulf Coast, among others, while her nonfiction has appeared in Tin House, n+1, and The Guardian. Vogue has praised You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine as “Fight Club for girls,” while the Chicago Tribune called it “a satirical and searing critique of modern-day womanhood.”

Previously in this series:
“Influences” posts by Jabari Asim, Deborah Baker, Kate Christensen, Jennifer Gilmore, Lauren Groff, Lev Grossman, Jane Hirschfield, Alan Heathcock, Amitava Kumar, Adam Levin, Annie Liontas, Dawn McGuire, Dinaw Mengestu, Jim Moore, Manuel Muñoz, Maggie Nelson, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Geoffrey O’Brien, Arthur Phillips, Carl Phillips, Karen Russell, Timothy Schaffert, Philip Schultz, Mark Statman, Emma Straub, J. Courtney Sullivan, Ellen Ullman, and Adam Wilson

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Library of America launches fall season with a double-barreled blast of classic crime

Women Crime Writers: Eight
Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s
September’s here—and though it’s not officially fall for three more weeks, today The Library of America’s fall season gets underway with a bang—the bang of a pistol shot, one might say, with the rollout of a veritable bonanza for fans of crime and suspense fiction. The two-volume anthology Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s restores to print eight long-out-of-print or hard-to-find titles from the middle of the last century, while Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1980s collects four key works by an acknowledged master working at the height of his powers.

Readers in the greater New York City area should know that an official launch event for Women Crime Writers will be held next Wednesday, September 9, at The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan. The anthology’s editor, crime fiction authority Sarah Weinman, will be joined by one of the genre’s leading contemporary practitioners, bestselling author Megan Abbott, for a talk on the role of women authors in the American crime/suspense canon.

If you can’t make it to next Wednesday’s launch event, don't despair—Weinman will be discussing Women Crime Writers at bookstores around the country (and also in Toronto) this fall. Click here for her complete tour schedule. Curious readers are also directed to Weinman’s recent Reader’s Almanac post in which she discussed the collection’s origins, its significance for the genre, and what working on it has meant to her personally. Last but far from least, our Women Crime Writers mini-site features extensive contextual information about the eight novels in the collection and their authors, along with appreciations by a range of contemporary talents in the field.

Elmore Leonard:
Four Novels of the 1980s
Jumping ahead a few decades, Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1980s, the second volume in LOA’s Leonard edition, brings together four titles—City Primeval, LaBrava, Glitz, and Freaky Deaky—from the era in which Leonard became an above-ground phenomenon and, as Jeff Simon recently wrote in The Buffalo News, “his mastery was a matter of widespread affirmation.”

As an added enticement to fans, Four Novels of the 1980s also includes early drafts of passages from City Primeval and LaBrava, an account by editor Gregg Sutter of the research that went into all four books, and, perhaps most intriguingly, “Impressions of Murder,” a November 1978 Detroit News Sunday Magazine article in which Leonard relates his experiences shadowing Detroit homicide detectives. (“Impressions of Murder” subsequently provided the inspiration for 1980’s City Primeval.)

Watch this space for more material related to the above titles, and for news of 2015 LOA titles still to come, which include late James Baldwin and Edith Wharton and a deluxe, diverse collection of writings by Frederick Law Olmsted.

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